Vomiting Larry is not the name of this year's hot new toy, or a new TV show on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim. He's a robot head that is helping scientists in the U.K. to study norovisus, most commonly known in Britain as the winter vomiting bug, which can cause vomiting and/or diarrhea and has infected at least 880,000 people in the U.K. this year. Noroviruses also infect millions of people in the U.S. every year.
As reported by the BBC, Vomiting Larry was built by scientists at the Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL) to study how norovirus spreads. They built a metal stomach and an anatomically correct human-like head that could "vomit" over and over again so scientist could see exactly what happens. HSL explains on its website that the intent was to understand the "extent with which the surrounding environment becomes contaminated when an individual vomits."
The study could prove essential in the control of the winter vomiting bug. The virus causes projectile vomiting so severe that it can travel nearly 10 feet, aerosolizing along the way. It only takes a few microparticles to infect a new person, and those particles are so small and so spread out by the end of the vomit trail that they can be almost impossible to see.
As HSL explains, their affectionately named "Vomiting Larry" was primed with that they call "a vomitus substitute" that the robot could puke as effectively as a human. The fluid contained a fluorescent marker so scientists could track how far the aerosol vomit spread. HSL says "these tests demonstrated the full extent of room contamination post-vomiting" and prove that tiny, virus-laden droplets can travel up to 10 feet without being detected "under standard white hospital lighting." The virus can then stay active for up to 12 days, in the right conditions, before infecting a new host.
Noroviruses were only discovered about 40 years ago and are still not very well understood, so the HSL work could, at least, help hospitals and other institutions slow down infection rates by providing a better knowledge of how the viruses spread.
You can learn more about norovirus — and see Vomiting Larry at work — in this BBC video: